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Oat Sustainability

Good for the Environment, Good for You

There are many and widely varying descriptions of sustainability. We see merit in the United Nations’ definition, adopted as early as 1987, that defined sustainability simply as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Oats are an essential grain, both for human consumption and animal feed.  Oat products are whole grain and heart-healthy.  Not only are oats healthy for consumers, oats are also healthy for the environment. Oats are especially valuable in environmentally sustainable crop rotation systems, helping to ensure sound cropping and soil conservation practices.

Most North American consumers don’t know about the environmental benefits of growing oats. Oats are an ideal low-input crop which, when included in rotations, encourage crop diversity to reduce soil erosion and control plant diseases, insects and weeds. Oats crops do all this and more. In addition to the direct value of an oat crop – the grain and the straw – oats have value as a key component of agricultural systems that include several other crops in rotations.

Each crop has its particular diseases and insect pests.
Planting crops in a yearly rotation, such as oats/soybeans/wheat/corn, helps prevent buildup of many destructive organisms. Keeping disease organisms and insects at low levels reduces the risk of unexpected yield loss and the need for chemical pesticides. For example, a three-year rotation of corn/oats/soybeans nearly eliminates the problem of corn rootworm eggs hatching after extended dormancy in corn/soybean rotations and, thus, the need for corn rootworm insecticides.
Incorporating oats into the rotation can help fight the most prevalent pest in the US’ largest crop, decreasing the need for chemical insecticides.

Oats greatly reduce the need for herbicides.
Oats are solid-seeded and, when planted early, develop a dense cover that shades competing weeds. The weed suppression effects of an oat crop can carry over to subsequent row crops if oats are included regularly in a crop rotation program. Oats are often used as a “natural herbicide” – grown as a companion (or starter) crop to help establish forage legume crops by shading areas where weeds would grow. As a result, reduced herbicide use in oat production helps prevent contamination of surface and ground waters.

Agricultural crops are distinct in terms of the amount of nutrients they take from the soil.
Oats extract less nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil compared to some other crops. For example, continuous corn production requires heavy applications of fertilizers, particularly nitrogen, to maintain high yields. Reducing excess fertilizer applications is important for reducing both surface and groundwater nitrate contamination.

Oats don’t deplete underground water aquifers
An oat crop can flourish with much less water than most other crops. In drier production areas, the United States’ number one crop – corn – must be irrigated to survive and flourish. Long-term irrigation has depleted precious underground aquifers in some areas.

Oats provide excellent soil erosion control.
Row crops leave a substantial soil exposed to wind and water erosion. The dense cover provided by oats helps prevent soil erosion. Oats also require less tillage for seedbed preparation, which further helps prevent erosion – the less one turns or disturbs the soil, the less the soil is susceptible to erosion. Farmers should consider the soil erosion control benefits of oats when developing conservation compliance plans for highly erodible land.

Reduced tillage also minimizes the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere where it can contribute to climate change.

Oat stubble is an ideal medium for planting in a no-till or minimum-till program.
More moisture is available for seedling establishment of other crops in oat residue compared to planting into row crop residue. Tests in South Dakota during dry years have shown a 15-20 bushel yield advantage for corn planted into oat crop residue compared to corn planted into soybean crop residue.

Oat by-products can help replace fossil fuels in power generation.
After oats are milled into food products, the leftover hulls are a clean and renewable energy source that can replace coal in generating electricity and steam. With nearly the same energy potential as coal, oat hulls generate electricity that helps power several large Midwestern universities and tens of thousands of homes. The steam can be used on-site to process the cleaned oats into foods.

Where power generation is not an option for oat hulls, they are used as an excellent fiber source in animal rations or as bedding in chicken and turkey barns.

Oats are good for people, too
Oat foods are wholesome, whole grain and heart healthy due to their naturally high levels of beta glucan. Consuming 3 grams daily of this soluble fiber—combined with a healthy diet—may lower the blood’s level of so-called bad cholesterol, diminishing the risk of coronary heart disease.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997, and Health Canada in 2010, authorized the use on food labels and in food labeling, of health claims on the association between soluble fiber from whole oats and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

September 2011
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